What does "mixed-income" mean for our towns?

What does mixed-income housing mean? To some, it means the next generation of public housing, an incredible improvement over the disastrous projects of the early 20th century. To others, it is just a less obvious way to discriminate against people with low incomes. The complicated reputation of this type of housing has fueled debate between policymakers and residents for decades. Needless to say, the effectiveness of mixed-income housing as we know it is far from a settled issue. But through its successes and failures, mixed-income housing offers some valuable ideas for ensuring equitable and sustainable neighborhoods. And it may offer a glimpse at a promising future for our towns.

A public housing project in Rochester, NY

A public housing project in Rochester, NY

The Beginning of Public Housing

To understand the relevance of mixed-income housing to our cities today, it’s important to know where it came from. In the early 20th century, U.S. housing policy introduced the government to the real estate business. Early iterations of public housing were meant as a solution to the problems of tenements and slums that housed most low-income residents. Slumlords had supposedly taken advantage of the poorest class of people by providing cramped, unsanitary, and unsightly living conditions in privately-operated tenements. The federal government intervened by expanding the housing division of the Public Works Administration and passing subsequent housing acts which marked the provision of housing as a responsibility of the government.

However, within a few decades, public housing facilities were plagued with the same mismanagement, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of maintenance that were used to justify the government’s initial venture into housing (See: Pruitt-Igoe, Robert Taylor Homes). The dramatic failure of federally-funded housing projects famously drew the ire of urbanist Jane Jacobs who described the housing as “[l]ow-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace.” Another key difference was that this time, the disastrous housing came at the expense of the taxpayer.

The Arrival of Mixed-Income Housing

Towards the end of the 20th century, mixed-income housing emerged as an alternative to the projects and has gained traction in housing policy ever since. Mixed-income facilities allow the government to exit the business of development and property management altogether. Under a mixed-income system, public housing agencies grant density bonuses and financing incentives to private developers in exchange for including units with rents held below the market rate to people with qualifying incomes. The practice is a favorite in New Jersey where municipalities have a constitutional obligation to permit the construction of units affordable to a range of incomes under the Mount Laurel Doctrine.

A mixed-income development in Morristown, New Jersey

A mixed-income development in Morristown, New Jersey

One of the primary benefits of the integration of subsidized and market-rate housing is that low-income residents typically enjoy higher-quality construction and amenities than what is offered in traditional public housing. Newer developments like Essex Crossing in New York, or The Union on Queen near Washington D.C. offer a quality of subsidized housing that would have been unimaginable just a few short decades ago when public housing lacked so much as air conditioning or functional heating systems.

Beyond the improved facilities, mixed-income developments give lower-income residents the opportunity to live in higher-income neighborhoods. When the government was constructing entire facilities dedicated to low-income residents, political and financial realities typically ensured the projects were located far from the wealthiest and safest neighborhoods. Mixed-income facilities help soften the negative perceptions of subsidized housing by removing obvious geographic and visual indicators of class. In doing so, they become more politically palatable to wealthier neighborhoods — with good schools and lower crime rates — that may otherwise oppose subsidized housing.

Emerging Limitations

Mixed-income housing is not without flaw. For one, the physical integration of subsidized and market-rate units has not erased the differences in quality of life between economic classes. Low-income residents may not always have access to the same amenities (e.g. fitness centers, community rooms, etc.) as the market-rate renters. Some facilities place more restrictions on residents of only the subsidized units such as frequent room inspections and regulated visitor access. What low-income renters gain in quality of living arrangements, they often sacrifice in privacy and autonomy.

Offering a dynamic mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes, this Houston neighborhood has housing options at a wide variety of price points.

Offering a dynamic mix of apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes, this Houston neighborhood has housing options at a wide variety of price points.

Most importantly, mixed-income housing is flawed because the system falls short of addressing the root of the problem it is intended to solve: lack of affordable housing. It’s true that in places like New Jersey, laws that mandate subsidized housing have prompted the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units, including subsidized and market-rate, that would have otherwise been blocked at the municipal level.

But forcing the price of some units below market rates simply drives up the cost of housing for non-qualifying residents, which naturally expands the pool of people seeking the subsidies in the first place. That isn’t to say the government shouldn’t provide any sort of safety net for those in need of housing. But taken to the extreme, achieving mixed-income neighborhoods through subsidization is an inherently unsustainable practice; it is an intermediate step towards affordability rather than a goal in and of itself.

A Different Type of Mixed-Income Neighborhood

Until this point, we have discussed mixed-income housing as a combination of market-rate and subsidized units. But that is not the only way to achieve mixed-income neighborhoods. With the right land use regulations, neighborhoods can naturally offer housing at a variety of prices within reach of most incomes without any need for subsidization.

Neighborhoods that offer housing to a range of incomes provide a variety of benefits over subsidized mixed-income neighborhoods. Whereas subsidized mixed-income units require wealth redistribution for viability, naturally affordable units expand the tax base as more people can support themselves without public aid. Naturally mixed-income neighborhoods also forgo the need for paternalistic policies that target low-income residents such as the ban on porch grills, visitor restrictions, or the lack of access to facility amenities. When housing is affordable to all, individuals retain their autonomy and dignity as residents.

Fortunately, we can find examples of non-subsidized mixed-income neighborhoods in pockets all over the country. Sometimes natural mixed-income housing occurs due to a lack of pressure on the housing market. For instance, it’s not uncommon to find areas catering to a wide variety of incomes in older neighborhoods of post-industrial cities like Trenton, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo.

In this neighborhood a mere 1.5 miles from the economic opportunities of downtown Houston, a modest one-bedroom apartment goes for $799 just one block from a luxury three-bedroom apartment going for $3,800. In a place like northern New Jersey, those prices would only be possible with considerable subsidies.

In this neighborhood a mere 1.5 miles from the economic opportunities of downtown Houston, a modest one-bedroom apartment goes for $799 just one block from a luxury three-bedroom apartment going for $3,800. In a place like northern New Jersey, those prices would only be possible with considerable subsidies.

In cities with explosive economic growth, such neighborhoods are harder to come by as zoning regulations often cripple the ability of housing supply to keep up with demand. However, Houston offers a good example of how a city bursting with economic opportunity can maintain neighborhoods accessible to a wide range of incomes.

While certainly not without regulation, Houston is far more developer-friendly than most other cities in the country, allowing developers to employ a wide range of housing types and densities to compete for residents. Residents benefit from this competition as rents remain relatively affordable and stable across incomes despite the massive influx of jobs and residents.

After decades of policy favoring economic polarization, mixed-income housing is a step in the right direction for building economically inclusive and sustainable neighborhoods. However, achieving mixed-income through subsidies is not enough to address the ongoing issue of housing affordability.

Subsidized housing policy must be matched with sensible land use regulations that allow neighborhoods to be responsive to the needs of people of all incomes. Only then will people of all incomes have equal access to the wide range of economic opportunities offered by our towns and cities.

(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)

About the Author

Austin Maitland is a Rochester, NY native and graduate student in urban planning at Rutgers University.